It’s a dog’s life alright in How To Train Your Dragon director Chris Sanders’ take on Jack London’s classic 1903 tale, Call of the Wild. There have been plenty of previous big-screen cracks at this story of a civilized canine finding his feral side – Clark Gable, Charlton Heston and Rutger Hauer among those who’ve starred – but never one quite this VFX-heavy. The big selling point is Terry Notary, the motion-capture maestro from the Planet Of The Apes reboots, who here plays Buck, London’s doggy hero. That and Harrison Ford at his most craggy.
Set in the American Gold Rush era, Buck is a domesticated St. Bernard/Scotch shepherd crossbreed, causing lovable chaos in the home of a friendly Judge (Bradley Whitford). But when he gets kidnapped, his life changes drastically. Sold as a sled dog, he’s soon part of a pack of mutts pulling the mail across the Yukon for Omar Sy’s mush-mush man. Yet this is just the start of an epic journey into the wild that eventually sees him pair up with Ford’s grieving loner, John Thornton.
Some of the script by Michael Green (Logan) misfires, notably the subplot that sees Dan Stevens’ greedy prospector (accompanied by a hard-to-recognise Karen Gillan) as the Buck-beating antagonist. With his bulging eyes, Stevens is rather cartoonish, more so than the CG rabbits, bears and wolves that litter the landscape. Fortunately, a big-bearded Ford is a hugely comforting presence throughout, narrating this story of man’s cruelty with lines like: “He was beaten but not broken.”
Smartly mixing live-action with CGI, Sanders’ film is a real feat of engineering – much in the way, say, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book was. The splicing of Notary’s mo-cap work with the snowy vistas is hugely impressive, even if the animals don’t always look quite real enough. Featuring some heart-thumping action sequences, there’s earthy humour and eye-moistening moments too, as Buck proves just why they call dogs Man’s Best Friend.